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Syracuse vs. Wake Forest preview: Five things to watch

What do we need to know in advance of this must-win game?

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange (4-5, 2-3) are back in the Carrier Dome for the first time since upsetting Clemson. Their opponent, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons (5-4, 2-3) play their second straight road game and are looking to rebound from a big loss to Notre Dame.

Both teams need a win for bowl eligibility, though obviously it’s more critical that Syracuse grabs this particular game. Wake would still have two chances (vs. NC State and Duke) to win one more, however.

So what should we be focused on going into the Orange’s game against the ‘Deacons this weekend? We identify five things below:

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Georgia Tech Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

1. Who replaces Greg Dortch long-term?

The standout freshman went down vs. Louisville, but not before he hauled in 10 passes vs. the Cardinals. Before his season-ending abdominal injury, he was Wake Forest’s top receiving option by a mile -- plus he was the team’s top return man, too. Alex Bachman and Scotty Washington stepped up against Notre Dame last week with eight receptions apiece, but they’d only combined for 21 catches going into that game. Can that be the new normal?

Dortch still has twice as many receptions as Washington (the closest pass-catcher on the team), so let’s wait and see. Bachman and Tabari Hines are actually more similar to Dortch in terms of size in the slot. However, it’s going to be tough to replicate the speed Dortch played with. Hines, who will replace Dortch on kickoffs, is likely to fit the bill best.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Florida State Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

2. Can anyone get past Syracuse on third down?

LSU is the only team to convert more than 25 percent of their third down attempts against the Orange, and is also the only opponent to convert more than three times (the Tigers managed seven). That’s not good news for an average (on third down) squad like Wake Forest.

The Deacons are 51-of-129 (39.53 percent) on third down for the year, which ranks about middle of the pack. Wake Forest has also won just won game all year when converting less than 38 percent of third down tries. That doesn’t necessarily bode well for the Deacons’ chances — especially since the one team they beat with a low percentage (Appalachian State) is not on par with the Orange’s talent.

3. Syracuse must keep Eric Dungey upright

The Orange haven’t protected Dungey all that well throughout the entire season, but that struggle has increased significantly in recent weeks. SU’s 28 sacks allowed make for one of the highest figures in the country, and FSU, Miami and Clemson combined for 13 of those. No opponent since Central Michigan (zero) has managed fewer than three sacks against the Orange this year.

Wake Forest is one of the top 25 programs in the country in sacks per game, with 2.56 -- however, the Deacons own numbers are a little inflated. Of the team’s 23 total sacks, 15 were tallied against bad offensive lines. Wake had seven against Louisville, five against Florida State and three more vs. Presbyterian.

Still, considering SU’s offensive line is bad and they’ve also let poor pass-rushing teams like Florida State (1.75 sacks per game) and Pitt (1.56 per game) get after Dungey without much issue, this could become a major issue on Saturday.

4. Is Wake Forest’s passing defense any good?

This will be crucial to whether or not the Orange can move the ball, obviously. If you look at Bill Connelly’s advanced numbers, the Demon Deacons appear to be 30th overall against the pass. Without per-drive numbers, though, WFU shows up in 55th at nearly 213 yards per game. And Notre Dame (NOT a passing offense at all with just 170 yards per game through the air) amassed 330 passing yards last week on just 23 completions.

Also, just one of the Deacons opponents thus far really possesses ANY sort of passing offense. Louisville is top 10 in passing yards per game, but the next-best group is Appalachian State at 57th. Five different foes are unequivocally bad at throwing the football. So the strong showing by Wake Forest’s passing defense may actually be a product of opponents, not actual skill level.

Syracuse should be able to serve as a stress test. Both Louisville and Notre Dame (Wake’s most recent opponents) threw for 330 yards or more against the Deacons, and those passing offenses are clearly on very different ends of the spectrum. SU’s a top-20 or so passing O. Perhaps they’ll see similar success.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

5. Which Wake Forest rushing attack shows up?

Like Syracuse, Wake relies heavily on its quarterback to help move the run game along. John Wolford may not be as dynamic of a runner as Eric Dungey, but he’s still managed 400 yards on the ground (on 4.7 yards per carry). Still, the attack — again, like Syracuse’s -- has shown wild inconsistencies. But whether or not they hit 150 yards should probably tell you a lot about whether or not they have a shot to win this game.

The Demon Deacons are 5-1 this year when they run for at least 150 yards, with the lone loss being last week’s effort against Notre Dame (a 239-yard output). During the team’s recent three-game losing streak against FSU, Clemson and Georgia Tech, they never managed more than 130 yards on the ground.

Coincidentally, Syracuse is 4-2 when its defense allows 150 or fewer rushing yards, and just two teams (NC State and Florida State) have even hit the 200-yard mark at all. Last week looked rough against the run, but Cam Akers is also a very talented running back. Assuming that was an anomaly, SU has a shot to bounce back this week. And if they do and halt Wake’s run game, that could be the key to a win.

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These are some starting points for conversation, but plenty of other angles to take a look at, too. Any more key matchups or narratives you’re focused on in advance of Syracuse’s game against Wake Forest? Weigh in below.